Friday, 21 March 2014

Vikings: "not as bad as all that" shock!

The British Museum is currently hosting a new exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend which is:

a) undoubtedly a good thing

b) attracting a lot of media attention (also undoubtedly a good thing)

c) reigniting debate as to the 'true nature of the Vikings' (erm...)

Love 'em or loathe 'em, there's no getting away from the impact that Vikings have had upon popular culture (where they are invariably depicted as hirsute, horn-helmeted larger louts from Scandinavia - to be fair, though, one only has to look to what they did to the monks of Lindisfarne in AD 793, to know that this reputation is founded upon some significant historical evidence). 

The new exhibition at the BM sets out to present all facets of Viking culture, Neil MacGregor, Director of the Museum, having been quoted as saying that “the reach and cultural connections of the Viking Age make it a remarkable story shared by many discoveries and research have led to a wealth of new information about the Vikings". This is all very commendable and I suspect that the exhibition will be excellent.

The British Press, however, seem to be rather more concerned with the simple issue of whether or not the Vikings, as a race, were blood-thirsty and violent or whether it's all bad publicity and negative PR. This is, of course, something that's not easy to resolve. Yes, some Vikings were clearly blood-thirsty thugs, extortionists and murderers, but some of them clearly weren't. Some of them did kill, burn and act in a thoroughly unpleasant way towards strangers; some didn't. 

That's the trouble with society: it's full of individuals. 

The rather black and white debate of 'were the Vikings good or bad?' has rumbled on for decades, occasionally surfacing in books and on radio and TV. The excellent (and sadly never repeated) 1980 BBC series Vikings!, written and presented by Magnus Magnusson, arguably started the discussion

whilst the "setting both sides of the argument" (with regard to our Scandinavian forebears) was central to the establishment of the Jorvik Viking Centre by the York Archaeological Trust in 1984.

Then in 2001 came Julian Richard's BBC series Blood of the Vikings,

Neil Oliver's 2012 BBC series Vikings,

Waldemar Januszczak's BBC series (also of 2012) The Dark Ages: an Age of Light

and (only last week) Andrew Graham-Dixon's BBC Culture Show documentary Viking Art.

These have, to varying degrees, all attempted to show every aspect of Viking existence and, almost without exception, have been picked up by critics, journalists and social commentators with amazement: "you mean the Vikings didn't have horned helmets, weren't all violent and some of them even liked art?" as if this were some new and utterly improbable revelation. The apparent contradiction, between blood-drenched war and earth-soaked peace, was nowhere better demonstrated (in my mind anyway) by the Horrible Histories Simon and Garfunkel parody Viking Peace Song:

"We Vikings have an awful reputation with your nation
But when we'd finished plundering and pillages
Made nice villages"


If Vikings do suffer from a pop culture image problem then perhaps the simple solution is re-branding: the application of a radical name change which (in Market-Speak) helps develop "a differentiated identity in the mind of the consumer in order to upmarket brand position" or (in Normal-Speak) is merely a cynical attempt "to swiftly distance a product from the negative connotations of the previous brand name" .

Changing identity through the simple alteration of brand name is a tactic used by governments, schools, academic institutions and health-care organisations the world over (once the press and public has, rightly or wrongly, identified them as being 'not fit for purpose'). One only has to think back to the 1957 Windscale fire, to date the worst nuclear accident in British history, to see that part of the attempt to reassure a concerned public was to re-brand the site 'Sellafield' (causing one political commentator to ask whether radiation would similarly be renamed 'magic moon-beams').

I would, therefore, humbly suggest that, in order to prevent the near annual cycle of media amazement at the (not very) stunning revelation that some Vikings were violent raiders whilst others were friendly traders, that the original thuggish raiding parties should retain the name 'Viking!' (preferably with the exclamation mark intact), whilst the secondary wave of settlers should be marketed as FLAFOs (Fluffy Loveable Artists From Overseas), HRAPs (Hirsute Rotund Agricultural Peacemakers) or, my own personal favourite, SCANTs (Sensitive Cuddly Artistic Norwegian Traders).

So next time you fall into the trap of believing that our 10th century ancestors were all savage, drunken, violent thugs, remember that, in reality, quite a lot of them were also a bunch of utter Scants.


  1. SCANTs, that pretty much made my day. Too bad we are no longer naming ancient cultures you have given me some great ideas.

    1. You're right, it's a great shame that ancient cultures are no longer actively being named - it would save all that constant process of reinterpretation. I was wondering (as one does) whilst sat in a meeting yesterday whether the whole 'Beaker Culture' debate could be resolved if we used the terms:

      Beaker Using Traders (for passive acculturation)


      Warlike Aggressive Beaker People (for enforced acculturation)

      Hence a simplified archaeo-interpretative struggle between WABPs and BUTs….

      …would it work?

    2. Reading this i could only think one thing:what a load of BUTFOCs (that's Beaker Using Traders From Overseas Communities)

  2. You can have a "Viking Feast" at the British Museum to accompany your visit to their exhibition:

    Although I fear "roast plums" may have had a slightly different connotation for the more raid-inclined 'Viking!'

  3. Never mind roast plums, how did the vikings have their nuts?